December 15, 2020

By Nigel Hollis

Recently, Richard Bambrick posted a link to a presentation by Martin Weigel, titled How not to FAIL. The basic premise of the presentation is that nobody cares about brands and marketers would do well to remember it. I agree. But that does not mean your marketing is wasted, far from it. However, you might want to figure out how your brand can associate with something people do care about.

Those of you who have attended one of my presentations will know that I am not a fan of the concept of ‘brand love.’ I often joke that I used to say I loved my car, but if so, I have just cheated on it and swapped it for a younger model. And then I review the evidence from cognitive science which finds that people’s emotional attraction to brands is weak at best. Maybe you feel strongly about one or two brands in your life, but most of the ones you use are just wallpaper.

And why would people have strong relationships with more brands than they do people? Dunbar’s theory suggests that people can maintain meaningful relationships with about 150 other people, but, as this BBC article suggests, those relationships differ in intensity, from 5 loved ones, to 15 good friends and 150 meaningful contacts. Intriguingly, a 2019 poll suggests the theory might be an overstatement, finding that, on average, Americans claim to have 3 friends for life, 5 more people they really like, and an additional eight people they like, making a total of 16. So, on that basis, it seems unlikely that people will maintain a strong relationship with any brand.

In his presentation, Weigel suggests that the relationships that people have with brands are thin by comparison to those that people have with other human beings. Given all the pressures and distractions of everyday life, it would be wrong to expect more. But thin is not necessarily bad, provided people’s impression of your brand is stronger than that of competing brands.

And the fact that people do not think much about brands much is a positive, not a negative. Because when people think, they try to be logical, and brands are not founded on logic. Instead, they are founded on feeling. Not the overwhelming attraction suggested by the word ‘love,’ but the instinctive feeling that prompts us to be drawn more to one brand than another. The instinctive attraction that is just enough to get us to pay a little bit more attention, to click on this link not that, to pick up this pack not that.

What creates that instinctive feeling? A lifetime of impressions of a brand gained from seeing other people use it, hearing them talk about it, seeing it referenced in social and traditional media and, yes, seeing its ads (paid content if you insist). And why do the ads matter? Because they provide a frame for how people perceive and experience the brand.

Most contact with a brand prior to use is incidental, intermittent and without consistency, so the impressions gained are unstructured and possibly contradictory. Ads provide an opportunity to create a consistent impression, a positive idea of what the brand stands for and has to offer, setting the agenda for how people interpret the other impressions garnered from everyday life.

But if most brands are wallpaper, how much more so are their ads? Why on earth would people waste time on them? The simple answer is that most of the time they don’t. Yes, you can shove your ad in front of people online, but unless your offer is immediately and personally relevant no one is going to remember it five seconds later. And remembering it is critical if the impression is to have any influence on people’s subsequent behavior (and most purchasing likely will be done weeks, months, or years after exposure to an individual ad).

So how do you get people to remember? Offer them something that they enjoy, something that sparks their imagination, something that stimulates them. Something that makes it worth their time to attend to the content. And make sure that your brand is associated with that content in some compelling way, something integral to what is shown, not simply a logo slapped on whatever screen people are looking at. Unless people are researching or shopping a category right now, no one is going to remember more than a gist of sense of what the brand is about, so aim to leave a branded impression, do not try to communicate facts or messages.

Building a motivating brand impression is not a one-time process. Repetition has an important role in how people build memories. So, aim to repeat people’s exposure to the same ad to get the impression seeded in people’s memories, then repeat that impression in different ways over time to strengthen that idea. Different executions, different media channels, different experiences, they should all add up to a clear and coherent idea of what the brand stands for.

In an age of behaviorism and hyper-targeting it seems so old fashioned to be talking about building brand memories and impressions, but then, the people who we want to influence are subject to the same instincts and motivations as their ancestors, it is just their environment that is different. That environment may be more immediate, more cluttered, and more distracting, but that simply means there is a greater opportunity for brands to influence behavior, provided they appeal to the human being not the technology they use. And that means understanding what people do care about. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.

About Author

Nigel Hollis

Analyst, author and "energetic speaker" regarding brands, media and marketing communications. Available for consulting, writing and speaking engagements.


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